The biggest mystery at the center of the new HBO crime series True Detective is this: is this a good show or not? When the first episode ended, I thought, “I don’t know if that was great or mediocre.” Six of eight episodes in, I’m still not at all sure.
In part, this is a problem endemic to mystery stories: endings are dispositive. AMC’s The Killing had everything it took to be a great crime series — acting, atmosphere, intelligence, suspense — until the idiotic solutions rendered it second rate. The ending of Crime and Punishment secures the novel’s status as a work of genius, whereas the ending of Woody Allen’s attempt to nullify Crime and Punishment — Match Point — reveals the film as nothing deeper than you would expect from a really smart undergrad philosophizing over pizza and beer.
So we may not know the full truth about True Detective until the final hour’s close. But how’s it doing so far?
Well, it has big shoes to fill, first of all. The show was clearly set up by HBO — and has already been hailed by some — as the next great crime show in this era of great crime shows. After The Shield, The Wire, The Sopranos, Dexter, Breaking Bad and Justified, man, I set my DVR for this baby before the promo announcer reached the tive in Detective. And I wanted to love it. And I still want to love it. And I sometimes feel like I almost love it. And I might come to love it. But I don’t love it yet.
So as a crime writer and a crime story fan, I’m going to try to get to the bottom of this phenomenon in a series of blogs. In this first one, let me list what I see as the basic pros and cons. There will be spoilers.
The style: it looks great. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga is doing a fantastic job conjuring up a Louisiana wasteland where the bayou laps at the edge of something that’s not quite civilization.
The structure: Two cops are interviewed in 2012 about a crime that occurred in 1995. So we simultaneously get to see our heroes in the bloom of youth and at the beginning of their decline, each period informing our idea of the other; very cool.
The acting: toss a couple of parts like this to Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson and it’s feeding time in the lion’s den. They’re a joy to watch and almost obscure the fine performance being turned in by the underused Michelle Monaghan as Harrelson’s put-upon wife and a wonderfully subtle smaller turn by Shea Whigham as a tent preacher.
Well, the tired plot above all and the even more tired plot elements. A Satanic serial killer who poses his victims? Really? Evil-doing religious people who molest children? Boy, I never saw that before! A corrupt Billy Graham type? It is to snore. Nothing surprises. Nothing is new. Even the writer Nic Pizzolatto said in an interview, “I’m not interested in serial killers. I certainly have no desire to get into some kind of creative competition for who can think of the most disgusting serial killer.” Well, fine — then come up with something fresh. That’s the job. Quite often, this strikes me as a crime story for people who never watch or read crime stories.
The pros and cons came crashing together in one stunning set piece at the end of episode four. Here’s the set up. Our detectives, Harrelson’s Marty Hart and McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, find they have to reach a source in a biker gang. But hey, it just so happens to be the biker gang Cohle used to be undercover with. And hey, it just so happens the bikers never found out he was an undercover cop. So Cohle goes back into the gang, is forced to take a lot of drugs to prove his sincerity and then, to further prove his sincerity, is forced to participate in an armed hold-up which starts a shoot out and race riot. But he manages to drag the source out of the melee.
What? The plotting is absolutely ridiculous — but then the action sequence is absolutely superb. I don’t mean to be picayune or cranky. I loved the funny, crazy, exciting shoot-out and chase. I just didn’t believe it for a minute. It violated the show’s carefully constructed sense of realism. I was dying to just kick back and enjoy it but the coincidences and absurd reasoning kept taking me out of the moment.
The whole show is kind of like that. At one point, Michelle Monaghan’s character remarks of her husband (I’m quoting from memory): “He didn’t know who he was, so he didn’t know what he wanted.” The same could be said of the series.
But all of this, though basic, is secondary. The real star of True Detective is Pizzolatto, the writer. This is first and foremost a written show and the question behind the question of its quality is this: does Pizzolatto have something really rich to say or is it all just flash and bang?
More on that in my next installment.
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